What Did Ninjas Eat?

While researching my newest Hiro Hattori mystery, BETRAYAL AT IGA, I needed to learn a little more about 16th century Japanese cuisine.

So … what did ninjas eat?

Click through to my guest post on the No More Grumpy Bookseller blog to find out how I answered that all-important question. As a bonus, the blog is hosting a giveaway for a free copy of the novel – as long as you enter before July 30, 2017!

(And I promise, unlike some clickbait headlines, I really do answer the question – without ads.)

Shojin Ryori Dinner for Two Ekoin (1)

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Jisei – the Poetry of Death

During the medieval period, samurai often wrote special poems, known as jisei, in the hours before their deaths. The tradition originated in Zen Buddhism, and fused three important principles from Zen tradition:

- The material world is transient and impermanent
– Understanding reality requires an absence of self-nature and acceptance (or pursuit) of emptiness
– Attachment to the world causes suffering


Monument to Master Poets (1)

The earliest recorded jisei was written by Prince Ōtsu, a younger son of Emperor Temmu, just before the prince’s execution in 686.

Customarily, composition of jisei was done only by members of Japan’s nobility, samurai, poets, or Buddhist priests. The poem was supposed to seek (and contain) a new viewpoint on life, as acquired by the poet’s view through the lens of his impending death.

Most jisei were composed in the form of tanka–a traditional style of Japanese poem containing 5 lines and 31 total syllables, arranged in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7. At times, however, jisei also took the form of haiku–17-syllable poems arranged in three lines with the syllable pattern 5-7-5.

Although they dealt with serious topics, some jisei also displayed the author’s sense of humor, like this one composed by Moriya Sen’an, just before his death in 1838:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
Hopefully, the cask will leak.

In Japanese, the final line reads moriyasennan, which is also a pun on the author’s name.

Samurai movies sometimes show a warrior composing a poem before committing seppuku, but rarely explain the history behind the custom. Now you know.

The concept also appears in my newest Hiro Hattori mystery, Betrayal at Iga, where ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, discuss the concept in the context of whether a samurai’s death was suicide…or murder.

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A Visit With Suzy Approved – and Ninjas!

Since it’s release week for BETRAYAL AT IGA, I’ve had the honor to talk with a number of bloggers, radio, and TV interviewers. I’ll try to share them all, for people who want to learn more about the Hiro Hattori novels, my writing process, and the books I read when I’m not writing! 

Ninja Shuriken

First up, this great interview with Suzy Approved Book Reviews, in which I get to talk a little more about my TBR pile and my favorite cities in Japan!

I took today’s ninja-related photo at the Iga Ninja Museum in Iga-Ueno, Japan, while researching Betrayal at Iga. This is only part of the large collection of shuriken (throwing stars) on display at the museum. As you can see, they came in many different shapes–only some of which are stars!

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Happy Ninja Day!

OK, it’s actually the release day for my newest Hiro Hattori novel, BETRAYAL AT IGA - but since Hiro is a ninja (who solves mysteries along with his partner-in-crime-solving, Father Mateo) I think it’s fair to declare today Official Ninja Day too!

Betrayal at Iga_cover

This newest installment takes Hiro and Father Mateo into the mountains of Iga province, the real historical home of the Iga ryu–one of Japan’s most famous ninja clans:

Autumn, 1565: After fleeing Kyoto, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo take refuge with Hiro’s ninja clan in the mountains of Iga province. But when an ambassador from the rival Koga clan is murdered during peace negotiations, Hiro and Father Mateo must find the killer in time to prevent a war between the ninja clans.

With every suspect a trained assassin, and the evidence incriminating not only Hiro’s commander, the infamous ninja Hattori Hanzō, but also Hiro’s mother and his former lover, the detectives must struggle to find the truth in a village where deceit is a cultivated art. As tensions rise, the killer strikes again, and Hiro finds himself forced to choose between his family and his honor.

This is my favorite Hiro Hattori mystery to date, and I hope, if you like ninjas, Japan, or mysteries, you’ll give it a try! (Although the book is the fifth in the series, I’ve written the novels to stand alone, so you don’t have to read the previous books to enjoy–or understand–this one!)

You can find Betrayal at Iga in print and ebook editions wherever books are sold–at your local bookstore, or online at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and IndieBound (to name a few).

And if you’re in the Sacramento area, I hope you’ll join me this coming Friday, July 14 at 6:30pm at Face in a Book, (4359 Town Center Blvd. #113, El Dorado Hills, CA) for a reading and signing of Betrayal at Iga along with stories about my recent trip to Japan!

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Beyond the Trope: Ninjas and Japan!

Curious about ninjas–either the real, historical ones or the fictional ones that appear in my Hiro Hattori mystery novels? I recently had the opportunity to talk about ninjas, fiction, and my upcoming mystery, BETRAYAL AT IGA, with one of my favorite podcasts: Beyond the Trope.

Ninja on Mizugumo

Check out the podcast here, and when you finish take a look at the archives for more fantastic podcast content!

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Kōyasan: The Heart of Shingon Buddhism in Japan

Yesterday, I returned to the summit of Kōyasan (Mount Kōya), one of Japan’s many sacred places (and the setting for my sixth Hiro Hattori Mystery, Trial on Mount Koya).

Kōyasan is actually a valley (Kōya) which lies in the saddle between the eight peaks of a mountain in Wakayama Prefecture (south of Osaka). The valley sits just over 800 meters above sea level, and is reached by means of the Nankai Electric Railway and the Nankai Kōya Cable Car, which takes riders up one of the steepest cable car tracks in Japan on a 5-minute ride to Koyasan Station, at the edge of the summit valley.

Koyasan Cable Car

From Koyasan Station, visitors take a bus into town or to one of the dozens of temples that line the slopes. My favorite is Ekoin, an 1100 year-old temple and shukubo (temple lodging) that accepts guests for overnight stays.

Ekoin Courtyard

Guests at Ekoin can participate in Zazen meditation (classes are offered daily), sutra copying, and a night-time guided tour of Okunoin, the massive cemetery atop the peak that surrounds the mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi. (The tours are offered in English as well as Japanese – and although all the guides are excellent, Nobu is one of the all-time best and is great at answering questions.) 

Okunoin at Night (1)

Temple lodging at Ekoin includes both dinner and breakfast, both of which are served in the guest’s individual room. The food is shojin ryori (temple cuisine) and entirely vegetarian, though even ardent carnivores will find the meals delicious and filling. (The photo below shows Ekoin’s “main and second tray” dinner for two in the summer – the menu changes seasonally.)

Shojin Ryori Dinner for Two Ekoin (1)

It’s some of my favorite food in Japan.  

The spiritual heritage of Kōyasan goes back to the 9th century, when the monk Kūkai (posthumously known as Kōbō Daishi) established the mountaintop retreat as the spiritual heart of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism–a teaching he brought to Japan from China several decades earlier.

I’ll blog in more detail about Ekoin and Kōya in the months to come, especially as the release of Trial on Mount Kōya approaches. In the meantime, if you visit Japan, be sure to schedule time to visit Kōya!

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Walking The Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto

I’m traveling in Japan at the moment, researching my next two Hiro Hattori mystery novels and spending some time with my son, who just completed his degree (in Japanese language) at UC Davis.

After spending two lovely days in the mountain resort of Hakone, we traveled by shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto for an overnight stay before heading into Wakayama Prefecture for a night on sacred Mount Koya. With only a single afternoon to spend in Kyoto, I opted for a walk along the famous Philosopher’s Path–a paved walkway that parallels a peaceful canal.

Philosopher's Path and Flowers

The famous path lies in northeast Kyoto, and runs from Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) in the north to Nanzen-ji in the south. The path actually ends near Eikando Zenrin-ji, another Buddhist temple just north of Nanzen-ji, but Nanzen-ji’s importance makes it the generally accepted “end” of the walk.

The path takes only about 30 minutes, if you go directly, though it’s better to plan a few hours so you have time to visit at least a few of the shrines and temples along the way. (My personal favorites are Ginkakuji, Ootoyo Jinja, and Eikan-do, though I visit as many as possible when I go.)

In June, hydrangeas are blooming all over Kyoto, and the philosopher’s path is no exception:

Hydrangeas Philosopher Path

Today, I had only 3 hours on the path, so I had to make some difficult choices. I opted to visit the Sanmon and outer gardens of Nanzen-ji: 

Nanzenji Sanmon

The lovely gardens at Eikan-do:

Eokan-do 2

And Ginkakuji’s famous Zen dry landscape garden and Kannon-do:

Ginkakuji Pagoda

After finishing my walk at Ginkakuji, I stopped at one of the many vendors that line the approach to the temple and bought a “handmade Ginkakuji temple cream puff” filled with vanilla custard. A tasty way to end a delightful day.

The Philosopher’s Path itself isn’t old enough to appear in one of my Hiro Hattori mysteries–at least with its current form and name–though several of the temples along the route were standing during the 1560s, meaning that Hiro and Father Mateo will probably visit one or two before the series ends!

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Japan’s Open-Air Folk Museum: Nihon Minka-En

When traveling in Japan, I like to get off the beaten path. This is partly due to my need to visit historical sites that feature in my Hiro Hattori mystery novels and partly due to my love of the unique and unusual.

Saduka House

This morning, I visited a site that will doubtless feature fairly heavily here on the blog in the weeks to come: an open-air folk museum south of Tokyo, called Nihon Minka-En(The name translates to “Japan Folk Museum”)

The museum is located in Ikuta Ryokuchi Park in Kawasaki (Kanagawa Prefecture), Japan, and consists of more than two dozen houses and other structures–including a Shintō shrine and a functioning water wheel and mill–that have been relocated from their original locations and preserved in rural, village-like settings.

Gassho House

This Gassho-style house was relocated from the mountains near Gifu province (northwest of Tokyo), and is one of three such houses on the grounds. It once belonged to a paper-making family, and the racks and other tools for making traditional Japanese paper are on display inside the house. 

Most of the buildings date from the 17th century, and all are furnished with the tools and possessions appropriate to their former owners’ status and daily lives. Some of the furnishings are original, and some are reproductions, but they combine to give a realistic feeling for life in 16th-19th century Japan.

In some cases, very realistic:

Japanese latrine

Visitors can enter the houses and walk around, making the museum a highly interactive experience. Volunteer docents around the grounds are eager to answer questions (and many of them speak excellent English, for visitors who can’t speak Japanese). All of the signs, and the houses’ histories, are also written in Japanese and English, making the museum highly accessible for visitors with limited (or no) Japanese ability.

Irori fire

From 11am-2pm daily, docents light fires in the irori (hearth) of several houses, and visitors are invited to join the volunteers by the fire, to experience what life was like in a Japanese home of this era. The ambience isn’t the real reason they light the fires, however–the smoke helps keep the house dry inside, assisting with preservation, and also kills insects that might otherwise cause damage to the roof thatch.

Living history, indeed.

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A Visit to Tokyo’s “Book Street” – Jinbocho

Jinbocho (sometimes also romanized “Jimbocho”) is Tokyo’s used-book and publishing center, which lies in Chiyoda Ward (aka Chiyoda City). Named after a 17th century samurai, Nagaharu Jinbō, Jinbocho covers several city blocks, all of which are lined with shops selling a variety of used, rare and out-of print books. 

Jimbocho Bookstore

Bookcases overflowing with volumes fill the shops from floor to ceiling, in rows that resemble narrow library stacks–if library stacks reached twenty feet in the air.

Jimbocho Books

Some of the shops carry Western books as well as Japanese ones. The awning over this shop reads “First Floor: Japanese Books. Second Floor: Western Books.”

Jimbocho Bookstore (1)

Coffee shops and restaurants wedged between the bookstores offer a place for shoppers to rest and replenish before returning to browsing the shops in search of readable treasures. For bibliophiles, Jinbocho is a fabulous place to spend an afternoon (and, likely, a few of your yen as well.)

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Hello, Tokyo!

This afternoon, my son and I arrived in Tokyo for a three-week research trip and celebration (my son graduated from university this week, with a degree in Japanese language). First stop, the hotel in Shinjuku:

Shinjuku from Hundred Stay

and shortly thereafter, dinner at Lotteria!

Lotteria Meal (1)

(Some people might find it ironic that my first meal in Japan was not “Japanese food” – but I counter that with the fact that Lotteria is a Japanese burger chain and, therefore, qualifies as Japanese food.)

After dinner, we made a quick stop at a convenience store for Japanese coffee-in-a-can, which I love and miss when I’m not here.

0606 Coffee in a Can

(If you haven’t tried it, you may find it difficult to believe that coffee in a can is any good. Let me assure you, it’s delicious.)

No research sites or points of interest on today’s agenda, because our flight didn’t land until almost 4pm. That said, I’m off to sleep because we have a full day planned for tomorrow!

What’s your favorite thing to do when you arrive in a much-loved foreign place?  

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